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Thomas Pieters aiming to be force on both PGA, European Tours

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Darren Clarke knew what was coming when he used one of his captain’s picks on Thomas Pieters for Europe’s 2016 Ryder Cup team.

“I’ve been on tour for a long time and I’ve seen massive talent come along,” Clarke told The Guardian ahead of last year’s battle between Europe and the U.S. “I played with Tiger Woods when he was an amateur in the (British) Open. I’ve seen Rory McIlroy up close since he was a very young kid. Thomas Pieters impresses me in the same league as those guys.

“He has that amount of talent.”

Clarke knows of what he speaks. While Pieters won the 2012 NCAA individual title representing the University of Illinois and captured three victories on the European Tour in 2015-16, he was an unfamiliar figure to American fans at the Ryder Cup. But the man known overseas as the Belgium Bomber, who once hit a drive 407 yards in a European Tour event, didn’t stay under the radar very long at Hazeltine National in Minnesota. After losing his first team match, he powerfully introduced himself to American fans as he became a force alongside McIlroy for two wins and then captured his singles match.

“I’ve got a partner beside me for the next 20 years,” McIlroy said after the matches. “I’m not letting anyone else have him.”

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Pieters, 25, said hello again last week in Los Angeles with a final-round 63 at Riviera Country Club to earn a share of second place in the Genesis Open, his blend of power and touch playing well near Hollywood. He won’t ever be under the radar again, another young gun who is primed to do serious damage on the PGA and the European tours.

“He’s the real deal,” Nick Faldo said.

Right now, the deal is for Pieters to get well heading into Thursday’s start of the Honda Classic at PGA Resort & Spa. After battling the flu and ear infection last week in Los Angeles, Pieters said he got a good night’s sleep Monday but still felt under the weather when he met with the media Tuesday.

“So you don’t want to shake my hand,” he said. “I feel like I’m at 60% now.”

As he proved last week, he’s a dangerous player even at less than 100%. His runner-up finish at Riviera got him within 19 points of earning special temporary status on the PGA Tour, which would effectively lock up his card for 2018. While playing on both tours could be in his future, Pieters’ attention will be on the European Tour.

“My focus this year and next year, obviously with the Ryder Cup year, is in Europe,” he said. “I’d love to combine (the Tours) in the future, and we’ll see what happens. But it’s still, you know, it’s only February. …

“And I’m really close to my family, and I love living at home and I’m a new uncle now, which is really exciting. Even when I go away for three weeks, I do miss my family. That’s why I’m going to keep playing in Europe and for the Ryder Cup, as well. I told (captain) Thomas Björn that I’m not going to leave his tour and I’m dedicated to playing in Europe and being in that Ryder Cup team.”

But it will be a busy February, March and April here in the States. After this week, Pieters will play four of the next six weeks on the PGA Tour, ending with the Masters. Then he’ll go to Europe.

“No,” he said when asked if he was concerned about burnout. “We try to limit it to keep it under 30, 25-ish (events). That’s when I think I’m at my best.”

It’s working so far.

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